By AMY BRACKEN, Associated Press Writer
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Helicopters loaded with drinking water and medicine touched down in remote villages devastated by floods as Haiti and the Dominican Republic struggled to recover from a disaster that left at least 1,000 dead and hundreds more missing.
With bodies floating near the tops of palm trees and thousands of survivors isolated by mudslides, aid workers along with U.S.-led troops planned new relief shipments Friday to remote towns where the death toll was swiftly rising.
The hundreds missing fed fears that the final toll could climb as high as 2,000 in the deadliest floods to hit the island of Hispaniola in recent memory.
Steady rains returned Thursday as U.S. Marines delivered drinking water and chlorine tablets to hundreds in the southern town of Mapou, where most houses were underwater.
As many as 1,000 were feared dead in Mapou, according to Margarette Martin, the government’s representative in the southeast province. Officials said they had confirmed about 300 dead so far.
U.N. teams were trying to arrange boats to help recover bodies trapped under trees and in houses in Mapou, 30 miles southeast of the capital of Port-au-Prince.
“You can still see bodies in the water coming up,” said Michel Matera, a U.N. technical adviser for disasters who traveled to Mapou on Thursday.
If workers can’t recover corpses soon, he warned that could contaminate water sources. “There is a grave risk of an epidemic,” Matera said.
The U.N. World Food Program planned to try to deliver eight tons of food to Mapou on Friday, if troops could provide helicopters.
“A few months ago we couldn’t move because of security. Now we can’t move because the roads are destroyed,” said Guy Gavreau, a spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program.
An estimated 10,000 people in 26 villages surrounding Mapou are in urgent need of help, Matera said.
“We are still having difficulty reaching them even by helicopter,” he said. “We cannot land because of the flooding, nor can we get there on foot.”
The Haitian government’s official death toll climbed to 579 Thursday as some 165 people, including 45 children, were declared dead in the border town of Fond Verrettes. Few bodies were found there after floods swept away most houses.
At least 417 bodies were recovered in the Dominican Republic, a number of them Haitian migrants who had crossed over to work as sugar cane cutters or market vendors.
The floods struck early Monday following three days of heavy rains, triggering torrents that swept away entire neighborhoods. Some bodies from the Dominican border town of Jimani were washed downstream into a crocodile-infested lake.
One 18-year-old Haitian, Pepe Dematin, traveled across the border to Jimani searching for his brother’s family of five. “I came to find them, but their house is gone,” he said.
Dominican authorities buried more than 250 bodies after the floods struck early Monday, some in a mass grave. Officials said they plan to spray disinfectant by plane over the Dominican border town of Jimani to keep decomposing bodies from spreading disease.
Red Cross workers helped search for bodies, survey the damage and treat the wounded.
To help purify water in Mapou, the Red Cross brought in some 7,500 chlorine tablets and 100 pounds of powered chlorine. The town’s one health clinic was underwater, so some of the wounded were being flown out by helicopter for treatment.
In the Haitian town of Fond Verrettes, U.N. officials brought plastic tarpaulins for shelter Thursday, while a team from France-based Doctors Without Borders (news – web sites) treated villagers with injuries. Matera said the World Food Program distributed 13 tons of food aid in the town.
With more flooding possible, “there is the urgent need to move people away from some areas,” Matera said.
The U.S.-led force, brought in to help after the Feb. 29 ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, struggled to fill urgent needs while they prepared to hand over control to a U.N. force on Tuesday.
Haiti has become a particularly hazardous place for flooding and mudslides because its impoverished people constantly fell trees to make charcoal, leaving the country almost entirely deforested. Without roots to hold back the soil, rains can bring disaster.
The floods were some of the deadliest in the region in recent years. In 1994, Tropical Storm Gordon (news – web sites) caused mudslides that buried at least 829 Haitians. As many as 15,000 people are estimated to have died in 1999 flooding and mudslides in Venezuela.
Touring Jimani on Thursday, Dominican President Hipolito Mejia promised homes for families who had lost them.
Associated Press writers Peter Prengaman, Jose P. Monegro and Ramon Almanzar, in the Dominican Republic, contributed to this report.